UPDATE: Lawmakers vote to expand WiFi to East San Jose
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

The San Jose City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved expanding the city’s community wireless network plan and prioritizing its distance learning strategy to provide every student with a computer, broadband access and digital literacy.

In the wake of COVID-19, schools across the nation have shuttered until fall, forcing classes online. But with 1 in 10 San Jose families lacking Internet access, education leaders worry low-income students and students of color caught in the digital divide will struggle the most. City leaders were already in the midst of planning and implementing an ambitious WiFi strategy to offer free school district-funded broadband services to the city’s East Side, but now the program may grow faster.

“This is not a pivot, so much as a refocus of a lot of good existing work,” said Kip Harkness, the city’s deputy city manager.

Through the Access East Side project, San Jose partnered with the East Side Union High School District to provide free Internet access to more than 40,000 residents. Last year, the James Lick neighborhood was the first to receive Internet access. The William C. Overfelt neighborhood will be completed in July, followed by the Yerba Buena High School neighborhood in late fall.

“The short term is to try to get as many people online but we’ve got to figure out the long term solution,” said Chris Funk, superintendent of the East Side Union High School District.

With students learning from home, some lawmakers are eager to complete the project in the city’s East Side and expand WiFi access to other school districts. Councilmembers Sylvia Arenas, Magdalena Carrasco and Maya Esparza said they fear the 18 percent of families without Internet access will academically fall behind the 72 percent of children already beginning to adapt to online learning.

In San Jose’s 19 school districts, students are in need of more than 15,000 hotspots and 12,000 devices, according to city officials.

City leaders will explore rapidly expanding the program to schools in San Jose and finding immediate solutions as part of the city’s emergency response to address the lack of Internet access in impoverished communities. Esparza also raised concern about bringing Internet access to the neediest families in the far corners of San Jose, which include areas of the city where the infrastructure for broadband service isn’t built.

“Now with COVID-19, we need to have that sense of urgency,” she said. “We see a lot of desperation in the community around basic needs…but these areas are also digital deserts. If you look at the connectivity map… you can just see the connectivity challenges that we have that adding a device is not going to solve.”

While students are in great need of Internet access across the city, Mayor Sam Liccardo said the city’s dollars are being stretched thin and finding a source of funding is still a concern. Liccardo added the city should look at finding alternative solutions to receive funding.

“I know the schools are hurting in a big way with their budgets — we’re going to be hurting as well — and finding public dollars to go invest is going to be very, very challenging and so we’re just going to have to be much more creative,” Liccardo said. “This was a significant challenge before COVID, it’s even a bigger challenge now.”

The city will partner with the Santa Clara County Office of Education and school districts in San Jose to identify students’ emergency access to laptops and devices, gaps in online access, areas that need the most service and distance learning plans. City officials will also consider other communities in need, such as seniors who need Telehealth services.

City officials will return in two weeks on May 5 to discuss those issues.

Resolution condemning xenophobia

Responding to the increase in harassment and hate crimes, San Jose lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously approved implementing a resolution condemning xenophobia and exploring strategies to combat the rise in prejudicial attitudes within the city.

Reports of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans in San Jose and across the country have skyrocketed following the spread of the coronavirus from China to other countries, leaving many in the community fearing for their safety.

“We have one of the largest Asian Pacific Islander communities and it’s been an unfortunate side effect of COVID-19 to have a blatant discrimination against Asian Americans,” Councilmember Raul Peralez said. “It’s important that we local leaders are able to step up and combat this.”

Phrases such as the “Chinese Virus” and the “Wuhan Virus” prompted by President Donald Trump and his administration contribute to the widespread tension, fear and anxiety many are feeling, Peralez said.

A database allowing people to report incidents of discrimination against Asian Americans created by the Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Asian Pacific Policy Planning Council has shown incidents of racial slurs, spitting and coughing at people across the country.

Peralez said Asian women are twice as likely to be the target of these attacks, while harassment is often reported at essential businesses continuing operations during the shelter-in-place order. With more than 35 percent of the city’s population identifying as Asian, the city needs to stand behind the community, he added.

With limited city resources and staff, the city will also prioritize partnerships with community-based organizations  such as the Asian Law Alliance, Asian Americans for Community Involvement and Silicon Valley Asian Pacific Islander Justice Coalition to develop anti-racist policies.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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